Katie Rogers describes her surreal experience in the back of a bus in Malawi
Bald-wheeled, rusty tin can minibuses with doors and wing mirrors held together by bits of blue nylon rope – one of these was going to be our trusty steed for the next six hours or so. I couldn’t help but eye them warily. We join a jostling crowd beside one flashing a sign ‘Lilongwe’, the capital city of Malawi. It’s still dark but there’s the faintest tinge of pink light on the horizon. The town may just be starting to stir but the bus terminal we were at was already in full swing.
Wrestling our backpacks, we clamber inside and slide along a row of cracked vinyl seats. A large bosomy lady presses in against me, clutching a wriggling plastic bag. It takes me a moment to register that the bag has the head of a hen poking out, gazing unblinkingly out of its beady eyes. Sandwiched in around us are a smartly dressed couple, a mother with a swaddled baby strapped to her back, a suited businessman in a straw trilby, a farmer, a schoolboy, and a young mother with her chattering brood. It doesn’t take long before the fourteen-seater is full, or at least every seat is occupied – we soon learn the difference. Gears crashing, engine revving we set off down a potholed road.
After only a few hundred metres we pull over. In pile more men, women, children, suitcases; our journey quickly descends into a good-natured game of human Jenga. Street vendors no older than ten frantically bang on the sides of the minibus, trays of eggs balancing precariously on their heads, waving bags of greasy chips and grinning broadly. The smell of frying potatoes and corn roasting on a makeshift barbeque has everyone passing money hand-to-hand through the dusty windows in exchange for the hot fries, corn, hardboiled eggs and accompanying rations of cling-filmed salt.
Multiple stops, and multiple reshufflings later, our packs are now strapped to the roof, the chicken is on Toby’s lap, a young girl with braided hair is on mine, the conductor dangles out the window, and to ensure maximum space efficiency, the small, sprightly driver has swapped seats with a broadly built passenger in a replica football shirt. Its exterior may not look so impressive, but we’ve managed to squeeze a whole microcosm of this country within the confines of one perilous sliding door.
A tour bus speeds past effortlessly, its insulated tourists passively observing the blurred landscape through tinted windows. Our tinny car radio belts out a crackly Malawian reggae remix of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler. We all hum along in happy harmony. They say Malawi is the warm heart of Africa – I think we found it in the back seat of one of its old, rusty, 5AM minibuses.
All image credits: Katie Rogers